30th March – 2nd April 2012

On Tuesday 3rd April I was at work pretending. We had got in at 2.20am that morning after a strict roster of driving back from Queenstown, one hour each and we didn’t need the fog between Fairlie and Geraldine.

Three of the party of eight were on a plane to Wellington at 6.30 that morning and they did wake up. They are mad – I am almost mad. It was a stunning trip and the scariest thing I have done in my life, the potential for slippage huge where the margin of error must be none. Geoff Spearpoint is the complete hero and a Master Mountain Man—an absolute privilege to be under his direction on the end of a rope when it mattered. The other ‘most scary’ thing for me was having both thighs get cramp at the same time at lunchtime on the first day after climbing 1000m with another 1000 before camp that night. That’s two Mt Herbert’s with a three day pack on, but as Linda said, somewhat steeper! The pain is excruciating. Luckily Chris had magnesium tablets and I was licking the container of anything salty.

But I get ahead of myself. Two cars left Christchurch at approximately 5pm, after work, and after driving and changing drivers, and driving, through the Mackenzie country in the gloaming and on through a moonlit night of Lindis, Dunstan, Kawarau Gorge, the bright lights of Queenstown and through to Glenorchy we were there to find MMM with the door open to the bunkroom. Sleep, power sleep, or not, and up at 6am. Clear morning and off to do the shuffle, one car to the Dart car park and then back to the Rees to meet the farmer who would take us up the riverbed, reducing the walk by 2-3 hours. It takes 1 hour 20 minutes driving time to do this loop, a long time for those waiting, especially a farmer out of bed too early! We were dropped right at the foot of the climb out of the valley and set off up the zigzag Kea Basin track with a break at the turn-off to the Earnslaw Hut. As we climbed we met the other groups who would be on the mountain for the weekend: four from Wanaka including

Mal, the alpine guide, who had his parapont with him, four from Dunedin, and two others. Some parties were travelling very light, with no tents, and felt real pressure to get to Esquilant Biv and secure a bunk. Up we went into Kea Basin and inspected the huge rock biv that would be such a godsend in bad weather. By lunchtime the views are already grand of the valley floor far below and of the surrounding mountains. During the afternoon the tongue of the Earnslaw Glacier reared above us on the left, and the sky clouded over slightly which made for cooler climbing conditions. We came to the edge of the Birley Glacier where caution and care were required but not crampons. “How are you going girlfriend”, says Dan, as we straggled along at the back. Liz meantime hasn’t stopped talking, with superb fitness she has air to spare. We trail into camp at 5ish and TTL (Terrific Trip Leader) immediately goes into cook mode, first the obligatory and very much looked forward to soup, followed by butajiru (a miso, bacon and noodle stew), served with great flavour and flair.

It is drizzling now and TTL’s star momentarily wanes until there is a clearance and Aspiring appears red in the sunset. A short walk to the top of Right Col and Pluto, the Toilet, and an overcrowded Esquilant Biv are silhouetted on an amazing horizon with jagged mountains tumbling in behind. Bed is welcome, in four minarets pitched on the flat shingle rocks at the edge of the snow. Big day tomorrow.

Woke to a cracker day and ice! Therefore a leisurely start at 9.15am as rock is covered in a dangerous sheen. “Step only on dry rocks” cautions MMM. Up we go, on the shingle initially then through the first gully and up the first rock band as we wind around the very, very steep mountain edge. Then up to the second rock band and to the pillar. There is blood on the snow ahead. MMM shimmies up the slot and then prepares the rope to take packs up the outside of the pillar and people up the inside to lessen the exposure. Geoff and Gary are on the top and ready to belay. I ask to go first—can’t stand the suspense of waiting. I scramble up with an ease that surprises me and the effervescent Gary gets a kiss as his smiling face greets me at the top. It is then my job to get in against the rock wall and stow the packs securely as MMM manoeuvres them over the top edge. One by one we are there. “No more pies” says Dan as he squeezes through the gap.

The summit of Earnslaw’s highest East Peak (2830m) was benign on this day for us. Not so for Mal’s partner who was almost physically sick as he dropped like a stone initially before the parapont took flight. After wonderful photo opportunities and ample time in the sun we retreated carefully off the mountain and back to pack up camp.

On Sunday afternoon as we descended via the Bedford Stream towards the Dart, there was little chat, a few “I’m not happy”s from Liz and a lot of concentration and route finding brilliance from MMM and his first lieutenants. Two rope lowers and fading light. With a lot of boot-edge balance and fingernails in sparse vegetation we eventually emerged in a calm and moonlit night like children to the promised land—of flat tussock, comfort and Chris’ chicken curry—a hugely satisfying day toasted by a mouthful of good red wine. Pluto, the west peak of Earnslaw, and Sir William sparkled in the moonlight above us.

Even the next morning, wonder at having descended safely down those unforgiving bluffs was the over-riding emotion. But there was still work to do—Tarzan and Jane country, first in the snow grass, then floating over scrub when it went well and cursing when it didn’t, before the final bash and grovel until the bush relinquished its hold. Two watches were lost with the owners unaware of when. Down and unrelenting down until at last we came upon the Dart Highway. A walk on the flat and oh the pleasure of a blue pool, cold and clean, refreshed for a long drive home.

Grateful thanks to Raymond (TTL) for all the organising involved in this second and successful opportunity to climb Mt Earnslaw. (We had a bonus trip last Show Weekend to Brewster Hut, when the Rees River was described by the locals as ‘too sporty’ for the landrover transport).

This trip was very special. I am so pleased to be down safely but so pleased to have been there, dwarfed by things way bigger than me. And not just the mountain, it was descending into the Dart River on a route described for mountaineering parties only. Geoff said cheerfully, PTC goes mountaineering. Bloody hell! But I would go again.

Sue Johnston for Raymond Ford, Gary Huish, Geoff Spearpoint, Dan Pryce, Chris Leaver, Liz Stephenson and Linda Lilburne. (SJ)